Inside the design process at HABA, a world leader in children’s games

ByDavid M. Conte

Aug 4, 2021

The very concept of nursery school was born in Germany, and with it the idea that young children can learn a lot by playing. So it’s no wonder that some of the best educational games for kids in the world are made there as well. But how do you design games for five year olds? HABA, the German toy manufacturer with successful board games like First orchard and Dragon’s breath, may have the answer.

Parents and educators will likely recognize HABA games for their bright yellow boxes all over store shelves. According to game designer Markus Singer, it all starts with a prototype, usually something handmade. His team receives some 1,500 prototypes each year, but only 600 of them make it to the testing phase. Even fewer put themselves in front of their target audience: young children.

“We have two kindergartens right here in our department,” Singer said in an interview with Polygon. “We take the games and play them with the kindergarten children. That’s a big part of testing these shortlisted games, because sometimes we think, “Well, they might be good for the kids. ”

But, like most things, kids have a knack for punching holes in a game’s design. Take, for example, the soon-to-be-released game called Hammer time, which hits stores in the United States this fall.

Photo: Charlie Hall / Polygon

When the prototype, created by Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington, appeared, it was a game about a broken down old truck. Players had to hit the truck with a hammer to loosen a few screws. The number of screws dropped determined how far a player pawn moved on a separate track. Its novelty (What kid doesn’t want to hit stuff with a hammer?) Made it a hit, but the theme and mechanics of the game itself needed more work. It was then that Dr. Jan-David Freund helped take it off the table and refine it.

Freund is a specialist in early childhood education and psychology. His job is to assess HABA’s entire catalog of around 300 games, and then align those games with the learning goals he is trying to support. In terms of game design, it’s also there to simply outline what kids are capable of doing at what age, effectively helping to tailor a game to suit a very specific audience of gamers – and the parents and educators who make them. serve.

“This is really the moment when I start to negotiate [with] product management, ”Freund said. “They need to focus on the numbers: what is selling well and what age groups we have, [and] where is a game of this or that size missing. There may be no games [in a certain category at all]. “

The theming of these games is also important, both to match the age range and also the desirability for certain populations. For example, the old broken pickup from Hammer timeThe prototype s became a mine filled with gems during the design phase. Players have also changed roles, from truck drivers to colorful little dwarfs. But it’s the mechanics of these family style games where the rubber really meets the road.

Freund says that a lot of attention was initially given to the hammer itself. “What is the design of the hammer?” Is the hammer suitable for the age group we are targeting? Is this a task that children can do? We created it [so that] kids wouldn’t have to hit too hard, so gems would fly everywhere. Are they able to make fine pounding movements, or so on. So these are questions I was asked to answer.

Hammer time set up for the game. The insert in the box is placed upside down, with a piece of mouse pad-like fabric on top to hold all of the gems in place quietly.

Photo: Charlie Hall / Polygon

But the doctor’s contribution did not stop there. The new themed game required players to extract a number of gems from the mine. But, there were different consequences depending on whether an odd or even number of gems fell. How do you teach the concept of odd and even to a five year old who can barely count? The answer came in charming little designs of two dwarves trying to fairly share their stash of gems. One card shows two full sacks and two happy dwarfs, while another shows two unhappy dwarves, two sacks, and a gem remaining between them. The pictures clearly illustrate the concept, and parents and educators can be on hand to reinforce it.

Cards showing odd and even numbers.

Photo: Charlie Hall / Polygon

“It’s called the concept of scaffolding,” Freund said. “[A child] maybe not able to do it now, but if someone helps them take the first steps, we can get them involved. The thing with scaffolding is that if you bring the kids to this point it really favors them the best. If you do them [do something] that at first they couldn’t do it, only with help, and they start to do it on their own, it really boosts their development. So we try to find the right compromise between what they can already do, what interests them and what helps them to take them to the next level the most.

Together, Freund and Singer took it a step further by suggesting additional tasks that would help expand the replayability of the game – and further reinforce appropriate learning goals for five-year-olds.

Delivered with Hammer time is a simple wooden dice with a bright color on each side. Roll the dice on each turn and, on a purple roll, the children will have to hit the box with their hand instead of the hammer; on a red, they will have to lie down with their heads on the table, as if they were sleeping; on a bruise, they will have to hammer with their free hand. All of these modes help develop a child’s manual dexterity.

With these additions and changes in place, it was then up to Singer and his team to bring the game to market. The separate, self-contained truck became the bottom of the box itself. Once removed from the cover, all you have to do is place a special adhesive pad on the bottom of the box to make the game much quieter. Next, dwarfs were pictured along the sides of the box, along with a set of gems to help young children count, comparing their gem collection to the goal.

Ultimately, of course, it’s the gameplay itself where the magic really happens.

“There’s that last aspect,” says Dr. Freund, “of daring and risk-taking. So the kids, really, if they’re too careful, they’re going to lose the game. But you have to take risks. You have to assess the situation on the table: “Oh, he only has one card! I have to push! ‘ And of course, that can be a bad decision. But that’s the way risks work, and kids have to dare something, but in a controlled situation. And daring and going out of one’s way is something kids need support for. ”

Hammer time was previewed with a commercial copy provided by HABA. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find more information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.


Rhino Hero Super Battle

Price taken at time of publication.

An extended version of the popular Rhino hero HABA game. It is a card stacking game where parents and children can compete on an equal footing.


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